There may be no other tree that is more quintessentially ‘southern’ as the magnolia. Robust white flowers in the middle of summer and the glossy, deep green leaves seem to breathe life into those long, humid dog days of summer. These days, however, gardeners have many choices when it comes to magnolia selections, so even if you are not a fan of the ‘traditional’ landscape, there are some excellent magnolia choices that will perform beautifully and with little maintenance in our coastal environment.
Though magnolias are not particular in their growing habits they do need areas with moist, well-drained soil, and out of especially windy areas. Sorry beach-dwellers. If you are like me, I usually move a plant two or three times before I am satisfied, but when planting magnolias, ensure that your location is the best place for that plant as they do not tolerate disturbance. Wait until early spring to plant trees and shrubs which gives you more time to find that perfect specimen.
Tried and True
While most magnolias are generally low-maintenance, if you are looking for ‘no’ maintenance, choose the native varieties. A fragrant addition in your home garden, Sweetbay Magnolia is a tried and true coastal native and tolerates soils with poor to very poor drainage. This plant has the typical magnolia flower that is large and showy white as well as fragrant. Leaves are evergreen and have a spicy fragrance that can be used in floral arrangements. Growing upwards of 35 feet, this tree will work in full sun to part shade conditions.
Another native, southern magnolia is a whopper, reaching heights of 80 to 90 feet. The evergreen leaves add winter interest and the cones are excellent as food for birds and other wildlife. The flowers also are large and showy and are bee magnets. If you cannot use a tree this large, consider a smaller variety such as ‘Little Gem’ that reaches about 25 feet at maturity.
Selections for 2018
If you want to break away from the traditional white magnolia flowers, look no further than varieties such as Coral Lake, Spectrum, Lois, and Royal Robes. Spectrum is a fast-growing variety but stays short, reaching 30 feet or so at maturity. It is bare in the winter; however, the bright pink flowers in late spring make this one a must-have. Coral Lake is an interesting variety that has been called a “breakthrough in color for magnolias…” This particular variety has petals that are streaked with yellow and pink that gives the appearance of changing colors throughout the day. Thus as the day progresses, colors of the flower will change from pink to yellow.
‘Lois’ magnolia is a sturdy tree with bright yellow blooms. According to Mark Weathington of the JC Raulston Arboretum in Raleigh, if this plant is allowed to branch low and is surrounded with blue flowering perennials, the color scheme may provide a “near religious experience.”
One particularly interesting variety coming to you, ‘Royal Robes” reaches approximately 15 feet, making it ideal for hedges. However, be aware that this one is relatively slow-growing and may not fill in for several years. However, the deep burgundy flowers in early spring make it well worth the wait.
Where to buy. I have scoured the internet for some of these newer varieties and with good success! ‘Spectrum’ variety is a little more difficult to find, but can be substituted with Saucer magnolia, which offers similar growing characteristics. Aside from asking your local nursery if they carry, or can order for you, check internet resources as there are several throughout the country that carry these particular varieties.
I think I am in good company when I say that magnolia trees are among some of the most vibrant and fragrant additions one could have in a home or commercial landscape. The large, almost succulent, fleshy flower petals catch your eye even at 35 mph. But from their summer and winter interest, magnolias are not particularly fussy in their needs, making them a hardy and vibrant addition to any garden.
For more information on magnolias, visit http://ces.ncsu.edu, where you can post your questions via the ‘Ask an Expert’ link, where you can post your questions via the ‘Ask an Expert’ link, or contact your local Extension office at 253-2610.
Sam Marshall is the horticulture agent with the North Carolina Cooperative Extension in Brunswick County. Contact him at firstname.lastname@example.org.